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Opinion

Personal views on current Child and Youth Care affairs

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UK

Foster carers are more than parents – it's important to recognise that

It’s funny how language can change over time, often mirroring a change in opinion. It took many years for foster parents to habitually be called foster carers. At the Fostering Network we thought this a significant and positive change in language because it reflected an increased understanding of the role. The responsibility – and the complexity – of the task has grown exponentially over the four decades the network has been in existence, and the change of title was an important step in recognising this.

But following the fostering stocktake in England, that important change appears to have been undone. The civil servants I have encountered from the Department for Education over the last couple of months appear to be using the term “foster parents” as their descriptor of choice. And I’m concerned.

Foster carers play an essential parenting role in the lives of the children they are looking after, offering love, support and nurture on a daily basis. They stay awake through the night holding the hand of a poorly child, give a standing ovation when watching a school play, help with homework, bake cakes, read bedtime stories ... In short, foster carers meet the physical and emotional needs of the children in their care.

Foster carer is a job description, it explains what the role is, highlights its complexity and shows its importance. Being called a foster carer doesn’t, of course, preclude strong personal relationships (indeed they are at the very heart of being a good foster carer), fostered children being given the opportunity to be a full member of a family, or fostered children calling their carers mum and dad or aunt and uncle or Janet and Phil. Being called a foster carer and showing love and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

But foster carers are so much more than parents. Here’s just a short list of things foster carers, who are at the centre of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, do that parents usually don’t have to:

Deliver highly personalised care within a professional framework
Write reports and other paperwork
Make assessments
Conduct home reviews
Attend placement agreement meetings
Get involved with the police
Manage contact with birth family
Complete life-story work
Receive pre-approval training and continuing professional development to maintain and develop their skills
Reflect on their practice
Have regular supervision, including an annual review

The term foster parents seems to ignore this list. By calling foster carers “foster parents”, the danger is that we revert to the old-fashioned view that all children who come into the care system need is a roof over their head and a hug.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who works with these children will know. Foster carers are experts in attachment issues relating to experiences of abuse, neglect and family separation and trauma. They provide expert input in to the life of a child, helping them overcome the trauma of their past.

Sometimes a change of language is a positive thing reflecting a change in societal thinking. My concern is that this change will lead to a further undermining of those who undertake such a vital role on behalf of our society. They deserve to be given respect for what they do and to be treated as the professionals that they are – continuing to call them foster carers is a small, but important, way to do that.

Kevin Williams

6 April 2018 

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